Science, Weeklies

The Skinny on Drunkorexia

A new study exposes a dangerous dieting habit prevalent in college communities.

College students are constantly searching for ways to stay in shape and keep the pounds away. But for some, these attempts to stay in shape can take a dangerous turn through behavior that has recently been coined “drunkorexia.”

The term drunkorexia refers to the cutting of calories from meals in order to save calories for alcohol. Combining poor eating habits with alcohol abuse can be extremely damaging to one’s health, according to a recent study at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The lead author of the study, Victoria Osborne, said via email that, “Drunkorexic behaviors put people at risk for developing acute health and social problems.”

Osborne, who is an assistant professor of public health and social work, said immediate risks associated with drunkorexia include a higher chance of being sexually assaulted, becoming the victim of other violence, suffering injuries to one’s self or others, driving drunk, losing consciousness, suffering alcohol poisoning and developing cognitive difficulties.

Not eating also drops blood sugar levels, making it more likely to pass out quickly from drinking, Osborne said. Drunkorexic behavior can impact one’s long term health as well put one at risk for liver, stomach, and heart problems.

NOT YOUR USUAL IN-CLASS EXAM

Osborne and her co-researchers decided to study the prevalence of drunkorexia among college students after reading about the phenomenon in the news, according to reports. Learning about the anomaly over the past few years prompted her to undertake systematic research on the subject.

The researchers studied the habits of 2,000 students by distributing ten question surveys in large lecture courses. The surveys included questions about restricting calories to save them for drinking and the motivations for doing so. It also included questions about ways in which people typically restricted calorie intake.

Sixteen percent of students surveyed said that they restricted calories, often skipping a meal or two, in order to save them for drinking, the study found. Three out of every four students who took part in drunkorexia behavior were female.

Researchers found that motivation for cutting calories in food included not wanting to gain weight and wanting to get drunk faster.

“Motivation was based on gender,” Osborne said in an interview with The Riverfront Times. “The men are more likely to want to save money. The women want to prevent weight gain. They also want to get drunk faster.”

SMASHED SUBCULTURE

“I think people don’t realize what a problem drunkorexia is,” said Christine Flammia, a freshman in the College of Communication. “They just want to get drunk faster and [they] think not eating is helping them.  They don’t realize how bad it actually is not to eat and then drink.”

“At this point, we cannot say how to stop it,” Osborne said, adding that more research needed to be done in order to determine whether the behavior occurs on a spectrum of less severe to more severe or if it is mainly an extreme behavior.

“Prevention, awareness and education programs may help students understand the dangers of engaging in this behavior,” Osborne said in the interview. “Implications are peers, society, and [pressure from] the media to stay thin while still drinking a lot or binge drinking.”

Interestingly, the study found that it did not matter as much if a student was involved in Greek life or not, but as long as they attended Greek parties, they were more likely to be “drunkorexic,” according to The Riverfront Times.

Osborne said that drunkorexia is not an eating disorder, but is a type of disordered eating.

“This is more of a behavior and a phenomenon,” she said.

FAR GONE PHENOMENA

Other dietitians and researchers are concerned about the potential impact of drunkorexic behavior, arguing that the combination of poor eating and binge drinking can lead to serious health issues.

“Poor diet quality in general can lead to nutrient deficiency or excess, unwanted weight gain or loss and increased risk of conditions like heart disease, diabetes or cancer,” said Lisa Ferreira, a dietitian at the Boston University Sargent Choice Nutrition Center, in an email interview.

“Restriction can impair concentration and decision-making capacity and can even lead to biochemical and psychological changes and disordered thoughts and behaviors,” Ferreira said.

“If one is restricting his/her diet, the effects of alcohol can be exacerbated in a dangerous way.  Alcohol can have a stronger, more rapid effect leading to risks associated with intoxication—inability to make decisions, putting one’s self in unsafe situations, black outs, alcohol poisoning, etc.”

Research has indicated that the rise in binge drinking among college students may be contributing to patterns in drunkorexia, according to an ABC News report.

“A lot of women I’ve worked with have used these drunkorexic strategies. It’s a habit they’ve formed and they have this mentality that you can’t get your last ‘hoorah’ in without thinking about the consequences,” said Dr. Kevin Prince, Alcohol and Other Drugs Education Program Coordinator at the University Health Services in Austin, in an interview with ABC News last year.

“Every calorie counts.”

A CRAPULENT CONDITION

Although Osborne’s study focused primarily on the prevalence of drunkorexic behavior and not the correlation between eating disorders and alcohol abuse, research has shown that there is a relationship between the two.

“Alcohol abuse and eating disorders frequently co-occur and co-occur in the presence of other psychiatric and personality disorders,” a study at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism determined in 2002.

BU students who did not know what drunkorexia was said they were not too surprised to hear it existed.

“I’ve never heard about this before but I definitely think that it’s possible,” said Paige Coles, a sophomore in CAS. “It still sounds disturbing to me.”

“I don’t think anything involving binge drinking is good at all. If you want to lose weight, you shouldn’t be drinking,” said Abby Green, a sophomore in COM.

“If you are going to drink and want to stay in shape, eat healthy and exercise. Don’t stop eating altogether.”

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